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Lessons from the O-Ring Analysis of The Challenger Disaster

Posted by Diego Fonstad
Diego Fonstad
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on Saturday, 09 April 2011
in True (or so we're told) Stories

Teachable Moment: The Challenger disaster was blamed on gas escaping from a faulty o-ring and much debate and discussion has emerged about how engineers should have known that that could have happened.  The data is readily available for students to analyze and plot themselves and can lead to a great case study or discussion.

Richard Feynman was one of twelve members appointed to a commission tasked with investigating the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Feynman's experiments showed that the tragedy was caused by a failure of the craft's rubber-like O-rings. Made of material with reduced resilience at temperatures below freezing, the rings were cracked by freezing weather, cracks which led to the escape of hot gasses leading to the fatal explosion. Much to the annoyance of commission chair William P. Rogers, Feynman used a glass of ice water and an O-ring to conclusively show the seal's vulnerability — at a press conference in front of live television cameras.

Later on, Edward Tufte analyzed the approach that the Morton Thiokol engineers had taken to analyzing the data and claimed serious problems with their approach.  The data is readily available and is more clear cut in hindsight but leads to a great discussion.

References: Edward Tufte, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrrative, Graphics Press, 1997.

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